Protests flare as Ukraine extends Russian base lease

KIEV (Reuters) – Opposition lawmakers hurled eggs and smoke bombs inside Ukraine’s parliament yesterday as the chamber approved an agreement allowing the Russian Navy to extend its stay in a Ukrainian port until 2042.

Crowds of government supporters and opponents scuffled outside the parliament building as deputies from newly elected President Viktor Yanukovich’s coalition approved a 25-year extension to the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s base in Crimea.

“Today will go down as a black page in the history of Ukraine and the Ukrainian parliament,” former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now in opposition, told reporters inside parliament.

The chamber filled with smoke as the smoke bombs were released. Speaker Volodymyr Litvyn took shelter under umbrellas provided by bodyguards as eggs rained down on him. Protesting deputies unfurled Ukrainian flags across the benches.

The protests galvanised various opposition parties against Yanukovich for the first time since he was elected in February, and they may yet prove a defining moment in the formation of an united opposition front.

They also highlighted the deep division in the former Soviet republic of 46 million. Yanukovich enjoys support mainly from Russian speakers in the east and south, including Crimea, who lean more towards Moscow.

Ukrainian nationalists from the west and centre, led by Tymoshenko and former President Viktor Yushchenko, regard the Crimea base as a betrayal of national interests. They wanted to remove it when the existing lease ran out in 2017.

Deputies brawled and the chamber resounded to cries of “impeachment!”, “coup!”, “betrayal!” as passions ran high.

But, with the air still hazy from the smoke bombs, parliament ratified the lease extension by 236 votes — 10 more than the minimum required for it to pass — and then promptly adopted the 2010 state budget which is key for securing $12 billion in credit from the International Monetary Fund.

Parliament, in almost siege conditions, bypassed normal procedure and rammed through adoption of the budget without discussion because of the mayhem.

Yanukovich agreed the navy base deal with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 21 in exchange for a 30 percent cut in the price of Russian gas — a boon to Kiev’s struggling economy.

“There is no alternative to this decision — because ratification means a lower price for gas and a lower price for gas means the budget,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said.

“The budget means agreement with the IMF, the possibility of getting investments. It is a programme of development for Ukraine in the future.”

Tymoshenko, speaking to a rally, said: “We have one slogan: Ukraine is not for sale. We must build a powerful system for the defence of Ukraine.”

Former parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who also ran for president, called for early parliamentary elections.

Yanukovich, speaking to journalists in Strasbourg where he attended a session of the Council of Europe, dismissed the disturbances, according to Interfax Ukraine news agency, saying: “Nothing unexpected took place in the Ukrainian parliament.”

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